Anti-Gay-Rights Initiatives Stir Hot Debate in 3 States

Evangelical groups qualify measures in Oregon, Colorado, Maine

CONSTITUTIONAL integrity or moral purity?

The debate over controversial anti-homosexual-rights initiatives in Oregon, Colorado, and Portland, Maine, is being presented in the most fundamental terms.

On one side are those who believe homosexuality should be seen as abnormal and therefore should be discouraged by the government and denied specific civil-rights protection. On the other side are those who say the effort to deny homosexuals such rights undermines the principles of equality found in federal and state constitutions and promotes discrimination.

Propostion 9 on the Oregon ballot would amend the state constitution by forbidding all government agencies here - including public schools - from doing anything that would "promote, encourage, or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism, or masochism."

Prop. 9 would direct agencies and schools to "assist in setting a standard for Oregon's youth" that recognizes such behavior as "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse and that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided." This means there could be nothing in state or local law specifically recognizing homosexuals as a minority deserving civil-rights protection in such areas as employment or housing.

Amendment 2, a constitutional initiative before Colorado voters on election day, also would prevent cities and the state from protecting homosexuals and lesbians from discrimination in jobs, housing, and public service. In addition, it would overturn legal protections currently on the books in three cities: Boulder, Denver, and Aspen. In Colorado, as in Oregon, only a simple majority of voters is needed to amend the state constitution.

An initiative in Portland, Maine, would repeal an ordinance passed five months ago banning discrimination against homosexuals. Because it is confined to only one city, the Portland measure has attracted less notice around the country than the two statewide initiatives.

All three anti-homosexual initiatives are sponsored by evangelical Christian groups. The sponsor of the Portland initiative is called the Christian Civic League. Amendment 2 is being put forward by Colorado for Family Values.

Prop. 9 is sponsored by the Oregon Citizens Alliance, a conservative group allied with evangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. The Oregon organization also has run candidates for statewide office in the past.

Kevin Tebedo, director of the Colorado group, says, "The homosexual political activists in our state are attempting to obtain protected class status in the cities and at the state hiring level, and we felt it was important that the people of the state get a chance to vote on the issue before it goes underground."

The measures in Oregon, Colorado, and Portland have drawn vociferous opposition from virtually the entire political establishments in those communities.

In Colorado, opponents are led by Equal Protection Colorado, a coalition of civil rights leaders, elected officials, gay groups, churches, and others. Analysts say their slick television spots have been very effective in countering the grass-roots campaign of Colorado for Family Values, which gets its message out through church meetings and pamphlets.

In Oregon, Prop. 9 is opposed by Republicans and Democrats, many conservatives as well as liberals, business and labor, Roman Catholic bishops, and most Protestant organizations. Opponents have pulled out the all the stops to fight the measure.

If Prop. 9 passes, the state Chamber of Commerce predicts, Oregon could lose millions in business, as Arizona did when it refused to establish a holiday recognizing the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Librarians and booksellers warn that novels like "Moby Dick" and "The Color Purple" could be removed from public libraries and schools.

Lon Mabon, director of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, says opponents are overreacting with scare tactics. The measure would not outlaw homosexuality, deny homosexuals their constitutional rights of free speech and association, or mean they would be fired or denied housing, he asserts. Prop. 9 would simply prohibit government from officially recognizing behavior that many people view as wrong, he says.

Ironically, the anti-homosexual initiatives are on the ballot in areas long considered to be politically "progressive." That suggests the organizing success of the evangelical groups - although in Oregon, at least, they have found their job made relatively easy. Jeff Mapes, chief political reporter for the Portland Oregonian newspaper, notes: "Only three [states] have a lower signature threshold for qualifying for the ballot."

All three anti-homosexual initiatives are considered likely to lose at the polls.

In Colorado, for instance, pollster Floyd Cirulli found in a recent survey that 51 percent of state residents oppose Amendment 2, while only 31 are in favor. Those numbers have not changed significantly since June.

"I would say that though the state is fiscally conservative, it is not conservative on social issues...." Mr. Cirulli says. "Generally, the [social attitudes] come out of a progressive tradition, dominated by educated middle and upper-middle [class] white-collar workers."

Bobbie McCallum of Equal Protection Colorado says she and her co-workers are "cautiously optimistic" that the measure will be defeated.

In Oregon, polls likewise show widespread opposition to Prop. 9. But that was also true four years ago, when a ballot measure asked voters to reverse a gubernatorial order banning discrimination against gay men and lesbians by state agencies. That measure passed by a 6-point margin.

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